Tattoo Safety: What to Know Before Getting Inked

The risks of getting tattoos and what can be done to remove them.

The risks of getting tattoos and what can be done to remove them.
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Tattooing is a form of body art created by injecting ink into the skin. About 21 percent of adults have tattoos, and approximately 36 percent of 18 to 25 year olds have them. Tattoos are created with a machine that acts like a sewing machine, which pierces one or more needles into the skin repeatedly. People generally experience mild to moderate pain. Tattoo inks vary in color, with red, green and yellow being the most popular.

What are the risks in getting tattoos?

Even with sterile needles, a tattoo site can become infected. This happens when bacteria contaminate the ink. Red rashes, swelling and pain are symptoms of an infection. An infection generally occurs two or three weeks after you get your tattoo. Antibiotics kill most infections, but some tattoo infections don't respond to antibiotics. If the tattoo artist is using needles that have been used on other people, these needles can infect others with diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Some people are allergic to the ink but don't know it until they get a tattoo. An allergic reaction can occur immediately. In some cases, the reaction occurs several months or years later. Skin bumps, rashes and itching are signs of an allergic reaction. Medication is necessary if the reaction is severe. Tattoos can also worsen some skin conditions.

Tattoos may result in scar tissue. Small knots or bumps may form around the tattoo. These bumps occur because the body is attempting to remove a foreign substance (the ink). It's possible the ink may travel into your body, and it's unknown if this will cause future problems.

[Read: Getting Inked? Your Guide to Tattoo Safety.]

What to do after getting a tattoo:

After getting a tattoo, remove the bandage after 24 hours, and keep the area clean. Apply a moisturizer several times a day for the first few days. Also, avoid direct sunlight on a new tattoo, as sunlight is the main cause of fading. Some inks, like yellow, fade faster than dark inks.

Do's and don'ts of getting a tattoo:

• Do go to a tattoo parlor that is registered and a tattoo artist who is licensed.

• Do ask about the ink's expiration date. Expired ink should never be used.

• Do request inks that are approved for tattoos. Inks may be diluted with water. Request sterile water to dilute the inks.

• Do go to the doctor if you think you have an infection. Ointments provided by tattoo parlors can't treat infections.

• Do inform health care professionals about your tattoos before getting an MRI.

• Do seek a professional to remove a tattoo.

• Don't use henna for a temporary tattoo. It is hair dye and not approved for tattooing.

• Don't attempt to give yourself or others a tattoo. Too many things can go wrong.

• Don't get a tattoo to hide IV drug abuse.

• Don't attempt to remove a tattoo yourself.

• Don't let other people pressure you into getting a tattoo.

• Don't get a tattoo over a mole. If there is a problem with the mole in the future, the tattoo may make it difficult to diagnose the problem.

How do I get rid of a tattoo?

Up to 50 percent of people with tattoos wish they'd never gotten tattooed. In most cases, these are people in their 40s who got tattooed as young adults. Removing a tattoo is a slow and expensive process. Most insurance plans don't cover tattoo removal. Tattoo removal should only be done by a dermatologist. Most tattoos are removed with a laser machine. The machine sends concentrated light bursts into the tattoo. These bursts feel like tiny drops of hot grease falling on the skin. Laser breaks up the ink that the body then removes. Different lasers may be used for different colors. Green, red and yellow are the most difficult inks to remove. Newer tattoos are also more difficult to remove compared with older tattoos. Most tattoos require six to 10 laser sessions. The result may not be perfect, and some scarring may occur.

[Read: Pharmacists' Top Recommended Scar Treatments.]

Dermabrasion is another method for tattoo removal. It's like sanding the layer of skin that has the ink. Tattoos can also be removed by cutting away the skin that has the tattoo. The remaining skin is then stitched together.